Halloween decorations are on display in the busy lobby of the Bucksport community center, where elderly gentlemen napped in front of a television set and the laughter of children spilled out of the gymnasium.
Food and drinks were carried in by the caseload and the parking lot was a hub of activity, but it wasn’t a typical community event at the James R. Frazier Center.
The looming National Guard truck parked by the live oak trees confirmed that the center has been converted to an emergency shelter to house nearly 100 residents whose homes were flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew.
Neighbors popped in the American Red Cross shelter on Thursday to check on friends whose homes are uninhabitable.
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Other residents came through to pick up their mail at the make-shift post office, hastily established after postal carriers could not longer access the flooded community.
Cots spread across the gymnasium floor – some covered in Red Cross blankets – with several jammed together in groups indicating that an extended family inhabited the space.
One cluster of cots belongs to four generations of the Weaver family, who were forced to evacuate after the floodwater invaded their home place of 65-years.
The only reminders they have left are some bedspreads, a playpen, four suitcases and several backpacks that now hold all of their belongings.
The matriarch of the family, Marie, sat nearby with her daughters, granddaughters and great-grandchildren – her wheelchair and walker had been hastily abandoned on the front porch of their house on Ole Bellamy Drive.
She was the first of precious belonging rushed out of harm’s way when they evacuated. Daughter Melinza Weaver was right behind her, grabbing clothing and medicine for her mother, packing one bag for each of them.
“Everything else is just gone,” Melinza Weaver said. “It was over our knees when we were leaving; the water had done took over.”
Alissa, who is Marie’s granddaughter, said she only grabbed a few changes of clothes for her toddlers and herself, never expecting that they would end up in a shelter for days. Or, that everything they left behind might be ruined.
After three-year-old Antoinette Marie “messed” her pants, Alissa Weaver said she used what cash she had on her to buy new clothes for the baby.
“I would rather she have clean clothes, than me,” she said.
The flood has since receded from the house, leaving a water mark about three feet high that will forever scar the blue wooden exterior. Marie’s wheelchair and walker are still on the front porch, tangled together in debris left behind by the muddy river water.
The Weavers say they’ve been warned by disaster workers against going back inside, because the old foundation has likely been compromised, and mold will soon set in.
“From what we’ve seen of the outside, the inside is lost,” Melinza Weaver said. “Pretty much what we got on our back and in one bag is all we got left. Nobody was thinking it was going to be that bad.”
“We’ll have to wait on FEMA to see what they can do for us. My mama loves that house, but we really don’t know what we will do now,” she said.
In the meantime, the Red Cross shelter is providing for most of their needs.
Cases of food stacked several feet high line one room of the community center, and a steady stream of volunteers carried in more boxes of bread, canned fruit, vegetables, cookies and doughnuts.
Despite their circumstances, residents appear upbeat, mingling with neighbors and playing with the children.
“It’s a sight to see, the community has pulled together like a family,” said Justin Sise of the Red Cross, as he finished unloading one truck, and prepared to unload another.
College kids volunteer in the afternoon to help out with the children and give parents a break, but the only toys the children have now are provided by the shelter.
Agent Rudy Tisdale with the Inspector General’s Office of the S.C. Department of Corrections has been at the shelter since it opened on Monday to lend a hand.
He’s being shadowed by a new friend, a special-needs adult that Tisdale has taken under his wing and “deputized” as his helper.
“He’s been arresting people all day,” Tisdale joked.
Noting the jovial atmosphere at the center, Tisdale says he has worked at numerous shelters after many disasters, but has never witnessed such a close-knit community.
“It’s the best shelter I’ve ever worked at. This community really came together,” Tisdale said.
But beneath the facade, residents are quietly grieving for their homes, and for their lives that will be forever changed by this disaster.
Asked about the home she left behind, Nelisa Geathers’ eyes filled with tears, and she hugged her one-year-old grandson Clifton close.
“Everything is devastated,” Geathers said. “Every night I cry because I miss my home. I don’t think I will ever be able to go back in there, that’s the hardest part.”